Jun 102021
 

As I remarked in a review opener last year, the UK indie Bristol Spirits appears to have fallen somewhat out of fashion of late, and its releases are not held up as ecstatically as they used to be, nor are reviews of their products either forthcoming or swooned over the way they used to be (that may be a function of the current pandemic as well). However, neither that nor the somewhat moribund website of the company should be taken as an indicator of any loss of focus or lack of activity. Mr. John Barret, the owner, with whom I had a most enjoyable conversation this morning (he just so happened to be wandering past the phone when I called and picked it up) rather wryly remarked that they are simply too busy with the real world to pay too much attention to the digital one, and are going great guns with their aged rum program irrespective of whether online attention is paid to their offerings or not.

One of their older products, predating the pandemic, is a cane juice rhum produced at Labourdonnais Distillery on the island of Mauritius (see below for further details on the distillery and estate). The Indian Ocean island is the home of other well known names like New Grove, Lazy Dodo, Grays, St. Aubin, Chamarel — and somewhere around 2010 or so, Bristol Spirits imported some unaged white rum from the distillery, and bottled a part of it immediately. The rest was left to age: some, matured in sherry wood, was released as a five year old rum in 2015 and this year (2021) they are pushing out the remainder in a 10 year old I’d be quite interested in.

For now, let’s just stick with this one: a 43% column still distillate deriving from cane juice, unaged, unfiltered, white, from a distillery few would likely know much about unless it was from The Fat Rum Pirate’s 4½ star review of the Boutique-y Rum Company’s 5 year old, back in 2019.

What surprised me about the rhum (for so we shall term it since it can’t be called an agricole) was how much like a Cabo Verde grogue it was. The nose, for example, channelled some of that same almost easy, relaxed scents as, oh, the Barbosa.  Nosing something like a dry white wine, it was redolent of freshly mown grass, green grapes and apples, sweet, light, and almost — but not quite — delicate. Cherries, raspberries and a touch of sour cider followed, as well as a sly hint of brininess after a few minutes.  Overall, the aroma had a distinctly agricole vibe to it, which of course was unsurprising. I liked it a lot.

The taste hardly faltered, which was a relief since a great nose does not always a great palate make. At 43% ABV it remained approachable, and an easy sip – warm yet cheerfully spicy; I tasted sugar water, the slight tang of tinned pears in syrup, white guavas, pears, papaya, all overlaid with the crisp and tart freshness of green apples, a bite of bubble gum and again, that trace of wine and brine in equal measure, lending character to the whole. That doesn’t sound like it should work, but yeah, it really kind of does.  The finish was nice and long, but here the complexity faded out and left mostly some fruity sugar water, which I accepted with as much grace as I could muster, the smell and flavours having so charmed me to begin with.

Now me, I like white rums. Not the over-filtered, clear, bland, anonymous and unaromatic cocktail fodder that clogs up far too many glasses, but clusterbombs of flavour like clairins or grogues, or the white lightning from Saint James, DDL, Depaz, Capovilla, Worthy Park, A1710, Issan, Savanna….well, the list is long, what can I say? Here’s another one to add to the list – it’s not fierce or feral, and doesn’t want to cause you pain. It is simply a compact and neat homunculus of a rumlet with oodles of flavour that dance and cavort across the senses, and one  that I will remember with great fondness.  

It occurs to me that it would probably retain all its charm and profile even if beefed up to a greater strength…however, I would argue that’s unnecessary, because it’s near perfect as a sipper exactly as it is, even if unaged. Mr. Barrett told me that Bristol never did really good business with it, and fell back to ageing the rest of their stock as a consequence. I think if more people had tried it when it was first released and whites had a better street cred at that point, then this Labourdonnais white wouldn’t have languished in the doldrums, but flown off the shelves. And in point of fact, as soon as this review goes up, I think I’m going  to go looking for one myself.

(#828)(86/100)


Other notes

  • My thanks to Mr. Barrett who was courteous and polite and answered all my usual questions. Couldn’t help but mention I was a big fan ever since I’d had the amazing Port Mourant 1980 all those years ago.
  • Outturn unknown
  • From the other references I saw, the label seem to be misspelled and the distillery name is one word, not two

Company Background

Labourdonnais is a distillery, of course, but is of relatively recent vintage, as are all such companies on Mauritius.  In 2006 the law was relaxed to permit rum distillation – before that all sugar cane planted on the island had to be made into sugar, the prime export crop.  As soon as this happened, the agricultural estate of Labourdonnais – home of the beautifully landscaped gardens and the famed Château de Labourdonnais – built a new distillery on their property, naming it Rhumerie des Mascareignes, and then renaming it La Distillerie de Labourdonnais in 2014, probably to line up with all the other agricultural and horticultural activities of the property for which it was better known. It has been making cane juice rum ever since, mostly white and lightly aged “amber” rums, but also exporting some bulk, primarily to Europe. 

Jun 082021
 

The Stroh 160 is the North American version of the famed Austrian 80º punch in the face.  In Austria, where it was first made in 1832 by Sebastian Stroh when he came up with the “secret combo of herbs and spices” (sound familiar?), it remains a cultural institution and has actually got some form of a protected designation there. In Europe it is seen as a bartender’s mix for ski resorts because of its use in the hunter’s punch, or Jagertee, while in the US its use centers around cocktails like Polynesian- or tropical- themed drinks that require an overproof rum — that said, my own feeling is that in the last decade it has likely seen a falling popularity in such uses, since powerful high-ABV rums from Guyana and Jamaica have become more common and accessible (my opinion only). 

That it is strong and an overproof is never seriously in doubt, because even a gentle sniff provides all the redemptive power of a sledgehammer to the kneecap, and all the attendant subtlety of the follow-up question that encourages you to spill the beans. This subtlety (in rum terms) is mostly composed of vanilla ice cream and some breakfast spices like cinnamon and nutmeg and allspice. It does present a few additional notes of light citrus, sour yoghurt, perhaps ginger.  But all that doesn’t really matter – the force of the ABV and the omnipresence of vanilla just flatten everything else, so maybe it’s just my overactive imagination kicked into overdrive by the heat and the intricate contortions of my burnt-out nasal passages that provide the notes.

Strictly speaking, no sane person of common sense drinks an overproof like this neat, since the punch bowl or cocktail is where it is destined anyway, but your fearless and witless reviewer has never been known for either, so here goes. To taste, it’s a raging maelstrom of not-much-in-particular. Again, the vanilla, no getting away from that; some salt, crushed almonds, butterscotch, caramel and cinnamon. A whiff of lemon zest zooms past. There’s really not much else here, and overall, it tastes quite straightforward — a spiced rum boosted with C4. The finish, however, is epic. It lasts forever, and clearly the makers were inspired by Stroheim, because you could walk into “Greed,” take a sip of this stuff from your hip flask, and still be belching out vanilla fumes at the end. 

Stroh has, since about 2016 or so — certainly since my original review in late 2012 when I named it a spirit — ceased using neutral alcohol (some references suggest grain alcohol, others beets) to form the base of its flagship product and begun to use alcohol distilled from molasses. This is what allows it to use the word “rum” on the label now.  However, since this bottle hails from North America and dates back to 2017, what might not pass muster in Europe could possibly find fewer obstacles out west, since the TTB has never been known for either understanding or rigorous enforcement of logic in allowing rum labels through its gate.

I’m okay with calling it a rum, as long as the molasses origin is true. In any event, I’ve always taken the position that such casual castoffs from all the major spirits categories deserve a resting place, the poor bairns, and so I gather them into the fold.

Even with the spices, It qualifies as a rum tasting drink…sort of. Scoring it, I was surprised to see I came up with pretty much the same points as eight years ago. Can’t really do otherwise, mind: it has rummy notes, the spiced flavours are reasonably well integrated, it tastes decent enough once it calms down and you find your voice; and on a cold night this thing would warm you up faster than your significant other could dream of. The Stroh is not a complete failure by any means, just a very strong, polarizing one that some people will like and others won’t. I kind of don’t, but almost do, and maybe that’s just me.

(#827)(74/100)


Other Notes

  • It is unknown where the molasses originates, or where the distillation takes place.  Since early records state that Stroh had a distillery in Klagenfurt, it’s possible they buy the molasses and do it themselves.
  • Ageing of any kind is also unknown. My money is on “rested, not aged.” No proof, though, so if anyone knows something concrete, leave a comment.

Other Notes – Background on Inländer rums and Stroh

Stroh may have great name recognition, but in modern rum circles there’s always been that air of slightly seedy disreputability about it, in spite of how long it’s been around. Few have actually written anything about the stuff, and even the Old Guard early online writers like Tatu Kaarlas, Dave Russel, El Machete, Matt Robold, Josh Miller, Scotte, Rumpundit and Chip Dykstra never got around to penning a review. And on reddit there isn’t a whole lot beyond people’s traumatized recollections or timid inquiries, as if nervous the rum might hear.

So what is Stroh, exactly, and who makes it?

The company and its eponymous product is an Austrian spiced / flavoured spirit that is one of the last surviving remnants of the European spiced and inländer (domestic) “rums” from the mid 1800s, that were also known as rum vershnitt. The category varied: some were cheap base rums or neutral spirits which were then boosted with high ester Jamaican rums for kick and character; others, like Stroh, added herbs and spices and flavourings and called it a recipe, a proprietary formula. The large colonial nations like Britain and France and Spain, with secure sources of molasses and rums of their own, saw no reason to go down this road, which is why Stroh and its cousins remains a peculiarity of Central Europe in general, and Germany and Austria specifically (Flensburg in north Germany was particularly famed for this kind of “rum” and had several large and well known companies which made them). Inländer rums were extremely popular in the pre-WW2 years, and one can still find their descendants (Tuzemak, Badel Domaci, Casino 50 and Croatian Maraska Room); I believe that Rhum Fantasias from 1950s and 1960s Italy were an offshoot of the practice, though these are now artifacts and no longer made in quantity, if at all.

As noted, Stroh was formed in 1832 in southern Austria and eventually located itself in Klagenfurt, the main town of the region. Its recipe proved very popular and for the next century and a half it continued under the direction of the family members.  Various changes in design and presentation and bottle shapes were introduced over the decades, and different strengths were sold (at this time there are five variants – Stroh 38, Stroh 40, Stroh 54, Stroh 60 and Stroh 80 – these numbers represent ABV, not US proof). The company grew steadily up to the 1980s and expanded its sales internationally, and eventually sold itself to the Eckes Group in the mid-1990s.  Eckes was an oils, tartar and spirits production company founded in 1857, and went into fruit juices in the 1920s as well, and after German unification the company re-oriented itself so decisively with fruit juices that is divested itself of the spirits portion of the business, which allowed the CEO, Harold Burstein to initiate a management buyout of Stroh and reorganize it. That’s where things are now. 


 

Jun 032021
 

Photo provided courtesy of /u/HeyPaul. Used with permission, and thanks.

This is a rum whose label tickles the trivia gene lurking within me.  So in the interest of science and the perhaps boring rehash of stuff some of you already know but some of you don’t, let’s go through the background and the details

First of all, that name. Like Fabio Rossi of Rum Nation putting the pictures of the old stamps he once collected on the labels of his rums, the makers of Penny Blue did the same. Not to be confused with the Two-Penny Blue issued in the UK (the second postage stamp ever made (in 1840, following the famed Penny Black), this one is the Mauritius issued version of 1847 which is now one of the rarest (and most valuable) stamps in the world. However this may be a matter of interests only for pedants, philatelists and unread rum reviewers like this blogger.

Secondly, the Batch 002. What is it? Well, so far as I can determine, it’s a follow-up from Batch #001 (natch), a run of 7,000 bottles deriving from 22 casks matured on Mauritius at the premises of the Medine distillery (see below). Of these 22 casks, 7 each were ex-whisky, ex-cognac and ex-bourbon, and the last one was Batch #001 stock mixed back in. The ages are varied though, and I don’t know the true age of the blend — a product sheet I’ve seen makes mention that the oldest portion of the rum is 11 years old (but not how much that is), and the youngest portion 5 years.

Third, the distillery. Most know (or at least have heard) of the Harels and the Grays, the makers of New Grove (and Lazy Dodo), and I have written about rums from Chamarel and St. Aubin.  There are also lesser known distilleries like Labourdonnais (Rhumerie des Mascareignes) and Ylang Ylang (which does not make rum), as well as the Medine Distillery, founded in 1926. It’s suggested that it actually owns two facilities: it’s own original sugar factory and distillery in Bambous in the west of the island, and its acquisition via JV in February 2000, of International Distillers who made the Tilambic 151, though I cannot trace their distillery’s location, just their distribution office…maybe it’s been shut down and consolidated.


Photo courtesy of /u/HeyPaul. Used with permission.

All right, so, we have a rum, a blend, 43.2% ABV, released around 2014 or so (it’s amazing that this is mentioned nowhere, btw), column still, a 5-11 year old blend released by Indian Ocean Rum Co., which is a collaboration with Berry Bros. & Rudd, who also assisted in its development. All that plus the overlong intro suggests a rum of uncommon quality for which I would have a page and a half of tasting notes.  Alas, no. Because the rum, good as it is, feels somehow less serious, by today’s standards of high-proofed single estate bottlings.  Take the nose: it is warm and light, quite fruity, and more than a touch sweet – notes of peaches and cream, orange peel, mint chocolate and rather stronger aromas of butterscotch, caramel, vanilla, and some leather and smoke. Letting it open up provided some additional hints of crushed almonds and breakfast spices, nothing more than a breath, really.

Fruitiness was more evident and welcome on the palate; it was an easy sip, no surprise at that strength, but surprisingly dry and quite supple to try…no discomfort or real sharpness mars the experience of drinking it neat. One can taste bananas and citrus peel, some tart gooseberries and strawberries, vanilla and breakfast spices again.  Smoke and leather mingle well with cumin and cardamom and it remains arid throughout (not unpleasantly so). A few cereals, crushed nuts and light molasses round out a pretty well-balanced profile. The finish is the weak point, as it tends to be for rums at standard strength – tremulous and wispy, and over way too quick, it’s all you can do to track some orange peel, oakiness, and a touch of vanilla and nutmeg.

A rum like this is something of a study in contrasts.  At first it doesn’t seem like much. It takes effort to disassemble, and if you’re used to stronger and more forceful rums, it may appear like nothing in particular.  This would be a mistake.  It’s quite a bit more complex than it’s warm easiness suggests.  Initially it tastes simple and faint, nothing to see here people, move along please…but it gathers some momentum and complexity as it opens up, and ends up (finish aside) as quite a nice little sipper.  Reminds me of a Latin American rum with an edge, or a lightly aged rum from Guadeloupe. This is not enough for me to rate is as high as others did, but I can’t dismiss it out of hand as some sort of low end crap either, because it’s got too much going on and is too well balanced to merit such a casual dismissal.

(#826)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • My sincere thanks to the reddit user /u/HeyPaul who very kindly gave me permission to use his pictures, which were much better than my rather blurry ones.
May 312021
 

In my own rather middling 2017 review of the Doorly’s 12 I remarked “It’s a well-made, serviceable, standard-proof rum for those who have never gone further (and don’t want to)…and remains a rum of enduring popularity.”  Rereading that review, re-tasting the rum, and thinking about all the developments in the rumworld between then and now, I would not change the review – but must concede that it works precisely because of those things that at the time I sniffed at, and retains its widespread appeal to both new drinkers and old in a way that cannot easily be discounted.  

We’re living in a rumstorm of Foursquare. I’ve never seen anything like it in all the time I’ve been writing about the subject.  Just about every single day, someone writes on social media about picking up this or that Exceptional Cask bottling or one of the Habitation Velier collaborations, gets a flurry of likes and comments, and the next day there’s another one. New releases are now online events in themselves, and while few now recall how startling this seemed just a few years ago, it’s almost a accepted wisdom nowadays that when  they go on sale they sell out five minutes before the shop pulls the trigger. 

All of this has turned the Face of Foursquare, Richard Seale, into the nearest thing the rum world has to a rock star (minus the leather pants). His ongoing online engagement, his irascible turn of phrase, his near-legendary inability to crack a smile, his take-no-prisoners approach to discussions, his highly vocal opinions, his fierce advocacy for protected status of Barbados rum, the quality of the rums he’s putting out the door, his amazing generosity in handing them out at festivals, the commitment to keeping his rums affordable — all these things have elevated him into the “must-meet” stratosphere of any rum festival he chooses to attend.  And have brought his rums to the attention of an incredibly wide audience, including those of whisky aficionados — Fred Minnick famously referred to Foursquare’s rums in the aggregate as the “Pappy of Rum” in 2017, and Matt Pietrek’s review of the rise of Foursquare in  a Punch article in 2018 made a similar reference.

Such publicity and the ongoing releases of cask strength rums in the Exceptional Cask Series (Key Rums in their own right) and the Collaborations leaves faithful old standbys in something of a limbo (much like the El Dorado 21 was), even occasionally dismissed. They are issued at close to standard strength and lack a clear signature kind of taste such as distinguishes Demeraras or Jamaicans, the sort of profile that allows even a novice drinker to take it blind and bugle “Bajan!” without hesitation. That is both the draw and the drawback of the Doorly’s line and the Rum 66, and the R.L. Seale 10 year old, though I contend that this should in no way stand in the way of appreciating them, not just because of their un-added-to nature and their age, but because on a price to quality ratio they’re great buys. People have been bugling the praises of the Doorly’s rums of all ages on both sides of the Atlantic for decades, and with good reason.

In spite of their being eclipsed by the new hot-snot Foursquare ECS and collaboration rums everyone froths over, in the last years I’ve deliberately sought out these standard, aged Bajans – multiple times – just to get a grip on what makes them so unkillable…because, like the El Dorados and low-rent Appletons, they sell gangbusters year in and year out, always come up for mention sooner or later and everyone has either tried one, recommended one, been recommended one or reviewed one.  I mean, everyone. Perhaps the key to their appeal is that In their own quiet way, they define not so much Barbados (although they do), but a single operation, Foursquare. The Doorly’s 12, is, in my opinion, one of the foundation stones of much that came to prominence in the last years – a blend of column and pot still distillate some of which was aged separately in Madeira casks, tropical ageing for the full 12 years, yet not torqued up to full proof, just serenely and calmly itself, at living room strength.

Consider the nose, for example. Not a whole lot of exceptional going on there, but what there is is clear, crisp and exquisitely balanced – it has an initial nutty, creamy and salt caramel attack, a touch briny and, set off with some molasses and vanilla. There’s a lightly citrus and fruity component coiling behind it all, made up of both sharper and sweeter elements (though it should be noted that the rum noses rather dry and not really sweet) like orange peel, bananas and raisins.  But this is an hour of effort speaking – for the most part, the average Joe will enjoy the vanilla, caramel and fruitiness and be happy with the no-nonsense approach.

The palate is where the rum falters somewhat, because the 40% ABV isn’t quite enough to showcase the varied elements (note that the rum is sold at 43% in Europe and other areas).  It has quite a bit of caramel ice cream, vanilla, white chocolate, crushed walnuts and light molasses. With more time and concentration, one can tease out the soft flavours of flambeed bananas, papaya, toffee, offset by spicy oak and citrus peel notes.  There’s even a touch of olives and brine and strawberries.  But it’s weak tea compared to the firmness of slightly stronger rums: 43% would be – and is – an improvement (I’ve tried both variations) and 46% might just be perfect; and the indeterminate finish – oak, vanilla, toffee, cinnamon and almost vaporized fruits – is too short and effervescent to leave a real impression.

Tasting notes such as these describe why I’m not entirely won over by the “standard” lines of rum made in Barbados, which are aimed at a broad audience.  Even in my earlier years of writing, I was ambivalent about them. My tastes developed towards more clear-cut rums displaying more defined and unique profiles. The Doorly’s 12 YO to me is not so much indifferent (because it’s not), as undifferentiated (because it is).  It’s very well made, tastes nice, has wide applicability, can be gifted and recommended without fear or favour, and you can tell it has age and solid production chops – I’d never dream of trying to dent its reputation on those aspects.  What it lacks is a certain element of real individuality. But I repeat that this is just a personal preference, an aspect of my own private proclivities (of all the writers I know, only one or two others share this opinion) — it has nothing to do with the wider world and its generally positive relationship to the Doorly’s line in general and the 12 YO specifically.  And now, after so many years of going back and forth among the various Barbados rums made by the various makers on the island, it’s time to cave, concede these are not flaws as I did before, but real strengths…and admit it to the canon.

Because, all the waffling aside, it’s almost the perfect rum for any enthusiastic amateur with some rum knowledge with which to wet his whistle.  Yes the 14 YO is stronger and the 5 YO is cheaper, but this one is Goldilocks’s little bear, strikes a perfect middle, perfect for a beginner to start their journey away from sweetened rums so many still regard as “premium.” It’s really affordable and of good quality for those who don’t taste a hundred-plus rums a year and have a slender budget with which to make careful purchases. It pleases reasonably on all levels. It almost always figures on a list of “what to start with” for the newcomers. It’s unadulterated and its age statement is real.  In fine, it’s one of the best midrange rums — on price, on age, on quality — ever made, by anyone. 

By that standard, there aren’t many rums that can exceed it. And therefore I do believe that it deserves a place on anyone’s shelf, either as a marker for one’s appreciation of well made rums that don’t ascend to the stratosphere, or a stopping point beyond which it’s tough to go without shelling out a lot more money. How can that combination be beat?  Short answer, it’s almost impossible.

(#825)(82/100)


Other notes

  • The rum re-reviewed here was the 40% version which I own.  I have added more notes to it from subsequent informal tastings at rumfests in both Paris and Berlin in 2019. The 43% edition is slightly better, but it was not what this essay is based on (though it would not change the sentiments expressed).
May 272021
 

Image provided courtesy of Jörn Kielhorn

Cadenhead’s defiantly massive codpiece, this 73.6% Mudland slugger, was among the strongest rums they ever unleashed upon an unsuspecting public, in 2003 1; it took no prisoners and provided no apologies and was stubbornly, intransigently, mulishly what it was – an undiluted can of pure whup-ass.  It must have scared the living bejeezus out of so many people when it was released, that all existing bottles were carefully hidden and buried and squirelled away, and blood oaths were sworn to preserve forever the silence of the grave upon its owners. 

Few rums this powerful outside the famed 151s were ever issued in the days before The Age, a genteel time of light and inoffensive blends, when noses were sniffily raised at the agricoles’ overgenerous 50º, and when 46% was considered shockingly outré, almost uncouth…not really fit for civilized company.  Even Velier, who practically redefined what Demeraras could be, balked at going too far in the proof direction back then. And yet, the Cadenhead rum really wasn’t that bad – though it must be mentioned that the growly ABV was to some extent also to its detriment.

That it exuded wild pot-still badassery in all directions was beyond question, and its nose was at pains to demonstrate it wasn’t bluffing. It was pungent. It was sharp. It threw around enormous notes of brine, pineapple, citrus, gooseberries and 5-finger.  Some caramel.  Some vanilla. There were other hints of sorrel, anise and hard Thai yellow mangoes, and yet, oddly, hardly any of the standard spicy and lumber-related aspects that could have been expected from the Versailles single wooden pot still of origin. Paradoxically, the very strength that may have recommended it to many, proved a vehicle to mask the subtleties of the still of origin.

And it didn’t slow down in the slightest when sipped, landing on the tongue with a kind of blunt force trauma that might actually be illegal in some states. Heavy salt caramel ice cream, red olives and brine, leather, oaky spice and aromatic tobacco led the charge.  Fruits were there, both sharp and ripe — prunes, blackberries, black grapes, apples — but these receded, fast, and were briefly replaced by anise, molasses and white chocolate almost too buried under the avalanche of oomph to stand out. The tastes of black bread and sour cream, cream cheese, honey, tobacco, plus a last welcome taste of strawberries and whipped cream weren’t bad at all, just too damned fleeting to be appreciated before poof, they vanished. 

Image provided courtesy of Jörn Kielhorn

Points for the finish which calmed the **** down: it was long and warm instead of crazy hot, creamy with caramel, toffee, salt, chocolate plus coffee grounds and aromatic tobacco — so, in brief, really nice — but the fruits that should have acted in counterpoint, were, alas, long gone. 

All that said, we’re talking about a pretty complex rum here, lots of stuff careening off the wall, with a sort of supercharged glee that might be displayed by a portasan to which someone strapped wheels and a jet engine.  That’s the problem, for me, it’s too much show and no go, and even letting it rest was insufficient to tone it down and allow a more leisurely examination of its profile.  The strength was there, it squatted toad-like on the senses, and it masked nuances a slightly weaker drink might have showcased more effectively (so water was a must with it).

But I’ll give it a guarded recommendation anyway – as one friend of mine says, he prefers the VSG taste profile over any other Demerara, so a rum like this is definitely for those like him – though I think care should be taken here, and as with all Versailles rums, it will be hit or miss for many.  After all, just because it’s enough of a bruiser to intoxicate Opthimus Prime does not elevate it to cult status, and is no reason to casually get one yourself just because it does. 

(#824)(83/100)


Other Notes

This thing had some interesting effects: it made me realize that I can’t count properly, as my list of 21 of the strongest rums in the world now contains 33; that Cadenhead doesn’t just not have a list of what the letter-marques on their Dated Distillation series mean, but don’t have a comprehensive list of their releases either and (c) their staff are really quite helpful and want to assist in such obscure quests even at the expense of their own sanity.

My remarks in the opening paragraph relate to the rum’s almost complete lack of an online footprint – until this review takes off, you will find only a single reference to it.  So some thanks are in order, to all those people who helped me trace the thing. Alex Van der Veer, cheapeau mon ami. Morton Pedersen over at the Cadenheads fans’ FB page, thanks. Nathan and Mitch at Cadenhead (UK), appreciate your time and effort; same goes to Angus and Kiss in the Denmark shop, who really tried.  And most of all, Alex (again) and Jörn Kielhorn, who got me the pictures I needed.

May 242021
 

Photo pilfered from DuRhum.com

Rumaniacs Review #R-125 | 0823

Many of the rhums from the Reunion Island distillery of Savanna are a high-ester rum-geek’s dreams and fantasies: they are molasses-based, and benefit from longer fermentation times and a pass through their Savalle copper column still. The term for these rhums with congener levels greater than 800g/HLPA and minimum ester levels of 500g/HLPA is Grand Arôme, but Savanna has branded them with other names, now and in the past. 

Since 2003 or so they have been called the Lontan series of rums — this is a play on the French creole words long temps or “long time” (referring to the fermentation), and tan lon tan meaning “in the old days”.  Previously, between 1997-2000 they were titled Varangue (verandah, perhaps a hint and a wink at where you should be drinking it), before which they were sold as Lacaze rhums…but of this last, few records remain and ZZI couldn’t tell you much about them.

The Varangue resulted from a 5-year R&D effort spearheaded by Laurent Broc who was once the Savanna’s Master Distiller and then the Distillery Director (he has since left the company), and was first released in 1997 to much acclaim: it was specifically aimed at raising both awareness and the reputation of Reunion rums, which at the time were not considered anything special. But it was likely ahead of its time, for it found no broad boozing audience in the rum crowd (unless it was domestic, or in France) and was not marketed to a broad geographical swathe. That said, it did great sales in the food and confectionary businesses. 

In the early 2000s when the new Savanna branded estate rums were initiated (Creol, Intense, Lontan, etc), the Varangue was rebranded as Lontan with better results and one could argue that it is with the concomitant rise of rumfests, social media and the New Jamaicans post-2010 that it was finally catapulted to the wider reknown the new name currently enjoys.

Colour – White

Age – Unaged

Strength – 40%

Nose – Initially, does not compare favourably against the Lontan Grand Arôme 40% released a few years later, but not all older rums are better than their replacements, it is true, so we move on. It gets better. Clean, briny, a touch herbal, but not much.  Glue, anise, floor polish and wax, a little rubber and acetones plus a very slight bitterness that I would attribute to oak had this been aged. Develops into a nice sweetness redolent of of pineapples, strawberries and overripe, almost past-their-prime fruit. 

Palate – Rather gentle and easy (no surprise, considering the strength).  Unfortunately this translates into a faint series of tastes one has to pay careful attention to tease out. Some furniture polish, those weird bitter oaky notes (what are they doing here?). Some nice acetones, and light fruity notes: pineapple again, strawberries, cane juice, light herbal notes of dill and rosemary.  

Finish – Short and light, almost watery.  Sweetly and tartly fruity – again, pineapple, plus gooseberry, five finger, and some mild sugar water

Thoughts – Overall, not really that impressed.  There’s a lot going on there, it’s just too faint to come to grips with, the balance among the various elements is poor.  Still, nose and palate aren’t bad at all. It’s pleasantly aromatic and shows something of what the entire Lontan series emerged from. I’d put it slightly ahead of its successor, but it’s within the margin of error

(78/100)

May 202021
 

These days, most rumistas are aware of the Scandinavian company 1423 and their upscale rum brand of the SBS (Single Barrel Selections, even though they sometimes aren’t). In the last five years this small Danish outfit has become a much bigger Danish outfit, not just bottling the upmarket connoisseur’s series of the cask strength single barrel releases, but whole blended lines like the Compañero rums, and occasionally horse trading barrels and supplies with other companies (the Romdeluxe R.1 Wild Tiger, for example, was originally a 1423 import).

But back when this Barbadian rum came on the scene in 2016, they were known primarily in Denmark, even though they had already been in the business of bottling and distribution for eight years by then and had had some success on the larger European rum scene. Not surprisingly, they bought and buy barrels from European brokers (like Scheer, of course…after all, who doesn’t?) and perhaps what enthused them about the Bajan barrel were the stats: distilled in 2000 at WIRD, sixteen years old, a solid 54%, enough for 224 bottles, and deriving from a pot still. That last might have clinched the sale, since most of what the drinking public was getting from the island at that point was pot-column blended rum.  A pot distillate was something rather more interesting.

The year 2000 delivered quite a few Barbadian rums from WIRD to the indie scene: Serge looked at a Cave Guildive 2000-2015 version in 2017 (87 points), one from Whisky Broker a year later (86). Single Cask Rum has probably reviewed the most, here, here, here and here, with the attendant curiosity of referring to them as originating off the Rockley Still when they likely are not (see discussion below this post). Be that as it may, they were and remain quite unique in taste, and this one was no different.  The initial nose, for example, started off very traditionally with papaya, bananas, fresh whipped cream…and some light petrol, diesel on a hot asphalt road, and tar fumes. There were hints of something medicinal, iodine-like and almost peaty notes, but very much in the background (where it belonged, trust me). Resting and coming back suggested we had just gone down the rabbit hole and entered the Hatter’s Tea Party: cookies and cream with some green tea, cucumber sandwiches on white bread (no crusts), delicate florals, light fruitiness and it was all I could do to not to think that this had one of the most completely weird aromas I’d experienced in quite a while — which is not, you understand, a bad thing…just an unexpected one.

Anyway, it must be said that the taste was better behaved. Again there was that fruity line coiling around the slightly heavier creamier notes. Citrus, tangerines, kiwi and pears set alongside vanilla, salt caramel, dark honey and Danish cookies. Also bananas and papayas plus a touch of tart and unsweetened yoghurt, very well balanced.  The medicinal, rubber, petrol and tar notes took a step backward here, so that while they could be sensed, they didn’t overwhelm – still, they distracted somewhat, and the integration into the greater whole wasn’t of the best. The finish was fine, redolent of iodine and soya, gherkins and again, all those light fruits and a touch of whipped cream and cookies.

The rum, then, was quite original, and now, reading around the other reviews of that year’s products after tasting mine, it doesn’t seem my experience was unique. This was certainly some kind of pot still action, and while it could have been made better, it wasn’t a bad rum. Last week I remarked on the weakness and flaccidity of a standard strength 8YO WIRD rum released in 2003 at 42%.  I always hesitate to put the blame of such mediocrity solely on the level of proof and years spent sleeping — because many other things impact profile, light rums do have their charms, and those who specialize in wines and lower strength spirits can often find much to enjoy there.  But when one tries another WIRD that is aged twice as long and nearly half again as strong, from another still, the impacts of age and strength and apparatus are undeniable. The SBS Barbados 2000 is not a top tier rum, it’s still seeking a balance it never finds – but it sure isn’t boring, or forgettable.

(#822)(85/100)


Notes – The Rockley “Still”

Many producers, commentators and reviewers, myself among them, refer to the pot still distillate from WIRR/WIRD as Rockley Still rum, and there are several who conflate this with “Blackrock”, which would include Cadenhead and Samaroli (but not 1423, who refer to this rum specifically as simply coming from a “pot still” at “West Indies” – one assumes they were still getting their knowledge base up to scratch at that point, and Joshua Singh confirmed for me that it was indeed a “Blackrock style” rum).

Based on the research published by Cedrik (2018) and Nick Arvanitis (2015) as well as some digging around on my own, here are some clarifications. None of it is new, but some re-posting is occasionally necessary for such articles to refresh and consolidate the facts.

“Blackrock” refers to WIRD as a whole, since the distillery is located next to an area of that name in NW Bridgetown (the capital), which was once a separate village. In the parlance, then, the WIRD distillery was sometimes referred to as “Blackrock” though this was never an official title – which didn’t stop Cadenhead and others from using it. There is no “Blackrock Still” and never has been.

Secondly, there is a “Rockley” pot still, which had possibly been acquired by a company called Batson’s (they were gathering the stills of closing operations for some reason) when the Rockley Distillery shuttered — Nick suggests it was transformed into a golf course in the late 1800s / early 1900s but provides no dates, and there is indeed a Rockley Resort and golf club in the SE of Bridgetown today. But I can’t find any reference to Batson’s online at all, nor the precise date when Rockley’s went belly-up — it is assumed to be at least a century ago. Nick writes that WIRD picked up a pot still from Batson’s between 1905 and 1920 (unlikely to be the one from Rockley), and it did work for a bit, but has not been operational since the 1950s.

This then leads to the other thread in this story which is the post-acquisition data provided by Alexandre Gabriel. In a FB video in 2018, summarized by Cedrik in his guest post on Single Cask, he noted that WIRD did indeed have a pot still from Batson’s acquired in 1936 which was inactive, as well as another pot still, the Rockley, which they got that same year, also long non-functional. What this means is that there is no such thing as a rum made on the Rockley still in the post-1995 years of the current rum renaissance, and perhaps even earlier – the labels are all misleading.  

The consensus these days is that yet a third pot still — acquired from Gregg’s Farms in the 1950s and which has remained operational to this day — provided the distillate for those rums in the last twenty years which bear the name Blackrock or Rockley. However, Cedrik adds that some of the older distillate might have come from the triple chamber Vulcan still which was variously stated as being inactive since the 1980s or 2000 (depending on the interview) and it was later confirmed that the most famous Rockley vintages from 1986 and 2000 were made with a combination of the Vulcan (used as a wash still) and the Gregg (as a spirit still). 

Yet, as Cedrik so perceptively notes, even if there is no such thing as a Rockley-still rum, there is such a thing as a Rockley style. This has nothing to do with the erroneous association with a non-functional named still.  What it is, is a flavour profile.  It has notes of iodine, tar, petrol, brine, wax and heavier pot still accents, with honey and discernible esters.  It is either loved or hated but very noticeable after one has gone through several Barbados rums. Marco Freyr often told me he could identify that profile by smell alone even if the bottler did not state it on the label, and I see no reason to doubt him.


 

May 162021
 

More than a few rums of Secret Treasures’ “classic” era with those distinctive labels, were all bottled in the year 2003.  When we consider that for years – decades, actually – the original owner of the brand, Fassbind, had been making grappa, schnapps and other spirits, then it’s not too surprising to consider that when they first went into rums, they didn’t mess around with a single barrel bottling, but picked up a number of casks all at the same time and released them simultaneously. So far I can’t find any references to rums from ST released prior to 2003 so I think we can reasonably date the inception of their rum line to that year.

The biography of the company is reprinted below the review, and I’ll simply provide the basic details: this is a WIRR (or WIRD) rum, with the type of still not mentioned (see Other Notes, below) in 1995, on the island of Barbados.  The ageing location is also unknown – Secret Treasures has noted for some others in this series, that they bought barrels that had been aged in situ, but that’s not enough for me to make the claim for this one. Oh and it was reduced down to 42% ABV, which was in line for the period, where producers were nervous about going higher at a time when standard strength was all distributors were often willing to accept (both Richard Seale and Luca Gargano faced this problem with many of their very early releases).

Therefore, what we have here is an interesting rum from the recent past which is something of a curiosity – too “young” to warrant the archaeological excitement of a truly old rum from forty or more years in the past, yet not current enough to be eagerly snapped up by today’s Barbadian fanboy.  In fact, it’s kind of fallen through the cracks. 

Can’t say I blame them. The rum is no great shakes. The nose is good enough – in fact, it could be argued it’s the best part of the experience – a little flowery, nutty, nice background of a caramel milk shake. I liked the spices coiling gently around stronger aspects of the profile, mostly vanilla, cumin and masala. There’s a touch of lemon peel, a little glue and acetones, light fruits – pears, papayas, mangoes, ripe oranges.  Nothing outstanding, just a nice, solid nose.

To taste, it’s warm, an easy drink.  For today’s more seasoned palate, it is, in fact, rather thin…almost unappetizing. I think there may be some licorice here, but it’s so faint I can’t be sure. Crushed walnuts, molasses, cereals, caramel, nougat. Some whipped cream over a dialled down fruit salad with the flavours leached out. The crispness of some apples and green grapes mixing it up with the blandness of bananas, watery pears and papaya, and believe me, that’s pushing it.  Finish is completely meh.  Short, warm, redolent of grapes, papaya, and a touch of the spices but the vanilla, molasses, pineapple and other tart notes is pretty much gone by this stage. 

As with most rums predating the current renaissance, which almost all need a bit more boosting to reach their full potential, I believe that the flaccid strength is the undoing of this rum for the modern aficionado. The nose is fine – faint, but at least clear and discernible – and it’s all downhill to near-nothingness from there. But I say that from my perspective, and those who have always stayed with the 40% rums of the world will find less to disappoint them, though I would suggest the rum retains some of that Goldilocks’s Little Bear characteristic of Barbadian rums in general.  At the time it was made, neat sipping was less the rage than a good mixed drink in which rums were not permitted to have too much character of their own, so that might account for it.

Secret Treasures has never really been a huge mover and shaker on the indie rum scene. They have almost completely dropped out of sight (and weren’t that well known even before that), stay in small markets with their current blended rums, and the promise of their initial single cask bottlings is long gone.  If it wasn’t for long-ignored old and mouldy reviews (including this one, ha ha, yeah you can sit back down there in the peanut gallery, fella), I doubt anyone would remember, know, or much care. But in a way I wish they had stuck with it.  There’s interest out there for such things and while their selections were never top tier, consider that so many releases all took place in the early 2000s, at the same time as Velier’s and Rum Nation’s first bottlings, preceding 1423, the Compagnie, L’Esprit and all those others making waves in 2021. Even if they aren’t that well regarded now, I argue that for history and remembering the first indies, it’s occasionally useful and informative to try one just to see how the world has turned, and dammit, yes, drink it for nostalgia’s sake alone, if the other reasons aren’t enough.

(#821)(80/100)


Other notes

  • A bottle of this went for £50 on Whisky Auction website in September 2018.
  • Outturn was 1258 bottles, from three casks
  • The still: it’s not mentioned on the bottle or Haromex’s website. It tastes, to me, like a pot-column blend, not aggressive enough for the pot, not light and easy enough for pure column.  Amazon’s German site refers to it being pot still, but that is the the only such extant reference (it was confirmed that there was an operational pot still at WIRD in 1995). No other source mentions the still at all (including Wikirum and RumX). We’ll have to take it as unanswered for now

Historical background

Initially Secret Treasures was the brand of a Swiss concern called Fassbind SA (SA stands for Société Anonyme, the equivalent to PLC – the wesbite is at www.Fassbind.ch) — who had been in the spirits business since 1846 when when Gottfried I. Fassbind founded the “Alte Urschwyzer” distillery in Oberarth to make eau de vie (a schnapps). He was a descendant of Dutch coopers who had emigrated to Switzerland in the 13th century and thus laid the foundation for what remains Switzerland’s oldest distillery. 

They make grappa, schnapps and other spirits and branched out into rums in the early 2000s but not as a producer: in the usual fashion, rums at that time were sourced, aged at the origin distillery (it is unclear whether this is still happening in 2021), and then shipped to Switzerland for dilution with Swiss spring water to drinking strength (no other inclusions). In that way they conformed to the principles of many of the modern indies. 

Fassbind’s local distribution was acquired in 2014 by Best Taste Trading GMBH, a Swiss distributor, yet they seem to have walked away from the rum side of the business, as the company website makes mention of the rum line at all. Current labels on newer editions of the Secret Treasures line refers to a German liquor distribution company called Haromex as the bottler, which some further digging shows as acquiring the Secret Treasures brand name back in 2005: perhaps Fassbind or Best Taste Trading had no interest in the indie bottling operation and sold it off as neither Swiss concern has any of the branded bottles in their portfolio.

Certainly the business has changed: there are no more of the pale yellow labels and sourced single barrel expressions as I found back in 2012.  Now Secret Treasures is all standard strength anonymous blends like aged “Caribbean” and “South American” rum, a completely new bottle design and the Haromex logo prominently displayed with the words “Product of Germany” on the label.


 

May 132021
 

There are some older bottles in the review queue for products from what I term the “classic” era of the Swiss / German outfit of Secret Treasures, and it’s perhaps time to push them out the door in case some curious person ever wants to research them for an auction listing or something.  Because what Secret Treasures are making now is completely different from what they did then, as I remarked in my brief company notes for last week’s entry on the “Carony” rum they released in 2003.

In short, from a traditional indie bottler who exactingly and carefully selects single barrels from a broker and bottles those, the company has of late gone more in the direction of a branded distributor, like, say, 1423 and its Companero line. That’s not a criticism, just an observation: after all, there’s a ton of little single-barrel-releasing indies out there already – one more won’t be missed – and not many go with the less glamorous route of releasing blends in quantity, though those tend to be low-rent reliable money spinners.

But returning to Secret Treasures’ rums of “the good old days”. This one is from Venezuela:  column still product, 42% ABV, 1716 bottle outturn. The label is in that old-fashioned design, noting the date of distillation as 1992 and the distillery of origin as Pampero — but it should be noted there is a “new-style label” pot-still edition released in 2002 with a completely different layout, sharing some of the same stats, the reason for which is unknown. As an aside for the curious, the Venezuelan Pampero distillery itself was formed in 1938 and remained a family concern until it was sold to Guiness in 1991; it is now a Diageo subsidiary, making the Pampero series of light rums like the Especial, Anejo, Seleccion and Oro. Clearly they also did bulk rum sales back in the 1990s.  

So that’s the schtick. The rum tasting now. Sorry for the instant spoiler, but it’s meh. The nose is okay and provided one has not already had something stronger (I had not) then aromas of caramel, creme brulee and toffee can easily be discerned, with some light oakiness, dark chocolate, smoke and old leather.  A touch of indeterminate fruitiness sets these off, some unsweetened yoghurt, plus vague citrus — and that word is a giveaway, because this whole thing is like that: vague.

Tasting it reinforces the impression of sleepy absent-mindedness. The rum tastes warm, quite easy, creamy, with both salt and sweet elements, like a good sweet soya sauce. Caramel and toffee again, a hot strong latte, oak, molasses and a nice touch of mint. The citrus wandered off somewhere and the fruits are all asleep. This is not a palate guaranteed to impress, I’m afraid. The finish is odd: it’s surprisingly long lasting; nice and warm, some molasses, coffee, bon bons, but it begs the question of where all the aromas and final closing tastes have vanished to.  

You’re tasting some alcoholic rummy stuff, sure, but what is it? That’s the review in a nutshell, and I doubt my score would have been substantially higher even back in the day when I was pleased with less. You sense there’s more in there, but it never quite wakes up and represents. From where I’m standing, it’s thin tea — a light and relatively simple, a quiet rum that rocks no boats, makes no noise, takes no prisoners. While undeniably falling into the “rum” category, what it really represents is a failure to engage the drinker, then or now – which may be the reason nobody remembers it in 2021, or even cares that they don’t.

(#820)(78/100)


Other notes

  • Comes from a blend of four barrels
  • Sold on Whisky Auction for £50 in 2018. Rumauctioneer’s May 2021 session has a “new design” blue label bottle noted above, currently bid to £17

Historical background

Initially Secret Treasures was the brand of a Swiss concern called Fassbind SA (SA stands for Société Anonyme, the equivalent to PLC – the wesbite is at www.Fassbind.ch) — who had been in the spirits business since 1846 when when Gottfried I. Fassbind founded the “Alte Urschwyzer” distillery in Oberarth to make eau de vie (a schnapps). He was a descendant of Dutch coopers who had emigrated to Switzerland in the 13th century and thus laid the foundation for what remains Switzerland’s oldest distillery. 

They make grappa, schnapps and other spirits and branched out into rums in the early 2000s but not as a producer: in the usual fashion, rums at that time were sourced, aged at the origin distillery (it is unclear whether this is still happening in 2021), and then shipped to Switzerland for dilution with Swiss spring water to drinking strength (no other inclusions). In that way they conformed to the principles of many of the modern indies. 

Fassbind’s local distribution was acquired in 2014 by Best Taste Trading GMBH, a Swiss distributor, yet they seem to have walked away from the rum side of the business, as the company website makes mention of the rum line at all. Current labels on newer editions of the Secret Treasures line refers to a German liquor distribution company called Haromex as the bottler, which some further digging shows as acquiring the Secret Treasures brand name back in 2005: perhaps Fassbind or Best Taste Trading had no interest in the indie bottling operation and sold it off as neither Swiss concern has any of the branded bottles in their portfolio.

Certainly the business has changed: there are no more of the pale yellow labels and sourced single barrel expressions as I found back in 2012.  Now Secret Treasures is all standard strength anonymous blends like aged “Caribbean” and “South American” rum, a completely new bottle design and the Haromex logo prominently displayed with the words “Product of Germany” on the label.

 

May 102021
 

In the maelstrom of ongoing indie releases coming at us from every direction almost every month, it’s easy to overlook some of the older rums, or even some of the older companies. Secret Treasures is one of these — I had discovered their charms on the same trip where I found the first Veliers, all those long years ago, at a time when the concept of independent bottlers was a relatively small scale phenomenon. Back then I bought the company’s Enmore 1989, and both Grandma Caner and I liked it so much we polished off the thing in under a week, and started looking around for more.

Over the years I bought a few others, got a few samples and reviewed the few I scored, and then ownership changed.  The last rums Haromex (the new distributor) put out the door  before they changed the ethos of the brand was the twin St Lucian John Dore and Vendome pot still rums in 2014 and subsequent releases were radically different. The company and the Secret Treasures brand has faded from view since then, and few consider their rums great finds (when they consider them at all) as other, newer indies jostle for the place it once held (for a more complete historical picture, see below)

This is where I’m supposed to make some nostalgic Old Fart kind of comment where I wax rhapsodic about the long forgotten and unappreciated rums of yore, undisovered steals and diamonds in the rough which weren’t appreciated at the time by the aggressive young rum pros of today, blah blah blah.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. The rum – a Caroni, one of a few released – fell unaccountably short of the high bar set by Velier and other independents, and remains a forgotten, forgettable curiosity, noted more for the associated name than any intrinsic quality it possesses itself.

Let’s do the tasting, then, to demonstrate why somehow this thing falls down flat. The nose gives a promising indicator of things to come, but which don’t.  It immediately reeks of the characteristic petrol, tar and road asphalt in hot weather which so defines Caroni.  It is dry and sere and surprisingly hot for a near-standard-proofed rum (42% ABV), dark and with notes of sugar water, rubber, acetones, fruits – unripe red cherries and strawberries, pears and ripe green apples.  There is also a touch of vanilla and light molasses, but nothing strong or overpowering.

A salty sweet sugar water greets the tongue with warmth and firmness.  All the fleshy and watery fruits we’re familiar with parade around – pears, watermelons, white guavas, papaya, kiwi fruits, even cucumbers all take a bow.  A trace of olives and occasional whiff of strawberries and petrol are barely noticeable, so one can only wonder where, after such a promising beginning, they all vanished to. Eloped, maybe. Certainly they bailed and left the rum with nothing but memories and a good wish to lead to its inevitably disappointing denouement, which was short, breathy, light and watery, and barely registered some vanilla, brine, a fruit or two and exactly zero points of distinction.

Secret Treasures did put out a few really exceptional rums — their lack of marketing, lack of visibility and lack of distribution mostly relegated them to obscurity (the Enmore 1989 mentioned above is a case in point) — and as is usually the case with small volume bottlers, the outturn of the original line was somewhat hit or miss, and not everything they bottled was gold. This Trini rum was something of a waste of time, for example, weak, unfocused, undistinguished, practically anonymous.  Oh it was a rum all right, identifiable as a Caroni, just not much of one. Perhaps it should have been left in the barrels a few more years. Many more years. And then finished in sherry casks. And then spiced up. Then it might have had a profile I’d actually notice. But then again, maybe not. 

(#819)(78/100)


Other Notes

  • Outturn 1304 bottles.  Distilled 1996, bottled August 2003 in Switzerland. The unproven implication is that it was completely aged in Trinidad.
  • The Ultimate Rum Guide notes it as being a “West Indies Distillery” without further elaboration, and the accompanying photo is wrong. I’ve left them a note to that effect
  • Richard Seale remarked in a FB comment on this review, “Age is an important factor in the latter day success of Caroni. This one may also be blended with neutral spirit – this was a practice in Trinidad – blending an aged rum with neutral spirit but keeping the age claim!”

Historical background

Initially Secret Treasures was the brand of a Swiss concern called Fassbind SA (SA stands for Société Anonyme, the equivalent to PLC – the wesbite is at www.Fassbind.ch) — who had been in the spirits business since 1846 when when Gottfried I. Fassbind founded the “Alte Urschwyzer” distillery in Oberarth to make eau de vie (a schnapps). He was a descendant of Dutch coopers who had emigrated to Switzerland in the 13th century and thus laid the foundation for what remains Switzerland’s oldest distillery. 

They make grappa, schnapps and other spirits and branched out into rums in the early 2000s but not as a producer: in the usual fashion, rums at that time were sourced, aged at the origin distillery (it is unclear whether this is still happening in 2021), and then shipped to Switzerland for dilution with Swiss spring water to drinking strength (no other inclusions). In that way they conformed to the principles of many of the modern indies. 

Fassbind’s local distribution was acquired in 2014 by Best Taste Trading GMBH, a Swiss distributor, yet they seem to have walked away from the rum side of the business, as the company website makes mention of the rum line at all. Current labels on newer editions of the Secret Treasures line refers to a German liquor distribution company called Haromex as the bottler, which some further digging shows as acquiring the Secret Treasures brand name back in 2005: perhaps Fassbind or Best Taste Trading had no interest in the indie bottling operation and sold it off as neither Swiss concern has any of the branded bottles in their portfolio.

Certainly the business has changed: there are no more of the pale yellow labels and sourced single barrel expressions as I found back in 2012.  Now Secret Treasures is all standard strength anonymous blends like aged “Caribbean” and “South American” rum, a completely new bottle design and the Haromex logo prominently displayed with the words “Product of Germany” on the label.


 

May 062021
 

The rums of the Reunion Island company Savanna span a wide stylistic gamut, depending on the source material (juice or molasses, for they utilize both), which still made them, and how many esters stuck around for the party (this is particularly the case with the high ester still Savanna casually uses to smack the unsuspecting and unwary into next week).  

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Velier’s book, they also release a whole raft of “sets” or types – for example, the Lontan (Grand Arôme / high ester rhums based on long fermentation times of up to 15 days), Creol (aged and unaged agricoles), Intense (molasses based, occasionally finished, aged and unaged), or Métis (blends of agricole and molasses rums).  And that’s not even counting the cool-named varieties within those sets, like “Thunderstruck,” “Chai Humide,” “Wild Island,” or the utterly prosaic put-me-to-sleep-please “Belgium.” They seem to have no particular interest in releasing things at a consistent strength and you’ll find rums at standard strength right up to 67% (a 2019 creol I still get delicious nightmares about).

Unsurprisingly, there’s an enormous variation of tastes in these rums – perhaps only the Guadeloupe boys can boast anything that jumps around the flavour wheel as much. You cannot make any predeterminations on “what I expect” with this distillery, and it would be foolhardy to try.  I’ve tasted those that are heavy on fruits, others that are more creamy or yeasty or flowery or creamy or are dark, light, heavy, solid, flaky….well, you get my drift.

Still, this 57% ABV grand arôme, which was released in 2016 for La Maison Du Whisky’s 60th Anniversary (they went into partnership with Velier the following year and formed LM&V), seemed at pains to make the point yet again.  In this case, it clearly wanted to channel a cachaca duking it out with a DOK, for it nosed pretty much like they were having a serious disagreement: vegetables and oversweet fruits decomposing on a hot day in a market someplace tropical; herbs, wet grass, sweet pickles, hot dog relish (I know what this sounds like!); sugar water; iodine, papaya, strawberries; wax, brine and cucumbers in a light pimento-soaked vinegar.  I mean, seriously, does that remind you of any rum you’ve ever tried? I both liked it and wondered where the rum was hiding.

In fairness, the taste was pretty good and conformed more to the ideals. 57% was a good strength for it, and even with the slight roughness of it being unaged, it wasn’t savage, just warm and firm. It tasted initially of brine and olives and then did a switcheroo to light anise and sugar water, fresh sugar cane sap bleeding off the stalk, combined with the tartness of unripe white fruit (guavas, soursop, pears), orange peel and some delicate flowers.  A touch of caramel, toffee, breakfast spices, ginger, nutmeg, rosemary and cinnamon, maybe. It fell apart on the finish, alas – that was short, watery, thin, somewhat sweet and lacking any of the complexity with just some herbs, mint, dill, anise and swank drifting away into nothingness. 

In other words, the rum started out strong – and startling…that nose really was something – and then each successive stage was weaker than the one before it.  That it had more complexity and style than most whites is undeniable, it just wasn’t assembled that well (which is a purely personal opinion, of course).  Why LMDW would release an unaged Savanna rum for a major anniversary at a time when Reunion wasn’t much appreciated and super-aged rums were much more likely to attract attention and money, is anyone’s guess. It’s also a peculiarity of the rum that it comes from molasses but through some weird alchemy of the process, actually tastes more like an agricole, which I’m sure you’ll admit is quite a neat trick.

The Fat Rum Pirate in his four-star 2017 review of this rum, remarked “This won’t be for everyone but [..] but whilst similar to other high ABV whites, it has enough going on to be different.” That encapsulates my own feelings as well: while I enjoy (and sometimes fear) the untamed ferocity of the clairins, the Guyanese and Jamaican unaged crazies, or the more refined French island blancs, I also appreciate something original which has the courage to go off on a tangent, before somehow coming together as a recognizably good rum.  This one shows that happening in fine style and I’m happy to have had the chance to try it.

(#818)(82/100)


Other notes

  • The LMDW 60th Anniversary release has a 1,000-bottle outturn.  Bottle number noted on the label
  • As before, thanks and a hat tip to Nico Rumlover for the sample. His unscored tasting notes can be found here.

Opinion

I’ve heard it bruited about from time to time (by the social media commentariat and never-silent chatterati) that rums which sport labels with [a number plus the word “Anniversary”] are presenting a deliberately misleading faux-age-statement.  I completely understand how any minor confusion could arise – when a rum says “50 Years” in large attention-grabbing typeface and then the Lilliputian word “Anniversary” barely visible below that, then the case is easy to make (looking at you, El Dorado, ignoring you, Plantation).

In the main, however, I disagree with the premise. It presupposes an erroneous and all-encompassing assumption of blinkered stupidity by rum drinkers who can’t differentiate the word “anniversary” from the term “years old” when buying something upscale.  Sometimes, such commentators really should extend consumers the courtesy of not thinking they (the consumers) automatically morons just because they (the talkers) know a smidgen more. Though to be fair, consumers really do owe it to themselves as well to pay close attention to what they’re buying.

May 032021
 

This is not the first Demerara rum that the venerable Italian indie bottler Moon Import has aged in sherry barrels: the superb 1974 30 Year Old, and several other over their limited rums releases, have also shared in this peculiarity.  However, the results are somewhat hit or miss, because while the 30 YO scored a solid and deserved 90 points, this one doesn’t play in that league, however well-aged it may be. It’s entirely possible that this is because the rum is not an Enmore still rum at all, as the label implies, but from the Versailles single wooden pot still.

One wonders if the rum’s profile can settle this, since I’ve noted that labels from Moon Import tend to be rather careless in their wording (when a Port Mourant rum can be referred to as a “rum agricol” you know somebody is asleep at the wheel). Is this Versailles pot or Enmore coffey? Indifferent rum-geeks around the world want to know.

Let’s take a hard look at the dark gold-brown 46% ABV rum, then. The aromas are not helpful: there’s some dialled down licorice, aromatic tobacco, leather and smoke at the beginning, but none of the characteristic raw lumber, sawdust and pencil shavings of the Enmore still.  The fruits are dark and piquant – prunes, blackberries, stewed plums, plus unsweetened chocolate, coffee grounds and salted caramel. It’s more raw and intense than the DDL’s own Enmore 1993 22 YO  from the first release of the Rares, and I have to admit that Moon’s rum had more in common with DDL’s Versailles 2002 13 YO than the Enmore itself. In particular, the attendant notes of musty cardboard, fried bananas and overripe pineapple do not suggest the coffey still.

What about taste? Oddly, for a nose that bugled its own assertiveness, the palate is much less aggressive, and really lacks heft in the trousers. Still, there’s something there: the old worn leather of sweaty Clarke’s shoes, some more dark fruits (raisins, dates, prunes, all very ripe); briny tastes, caramel, unsweetened molasses, sweet soya sauce.  Not much else, and that’s disappointing, really.  Even continentally aged rums can have more complexity than this. And what of the sherry influence? Not a whole lot, sorry to report, marked mostly by its inconclusiveness, leading to a finish that is tolerably pleasant (it’s not sharp or bitchy), warm, fruity, bready (like a hot yeasty loaf fresh out of the oven) but really not that distinguishable.

So on balance, I’d suggest Moon Imports  really is a Versailles single wooden pot still rum – too many of the subtle Enmore notes are missing (I’ve argued before it’s a bit more elegant than the other two stills which tend to a more elemental brutalist profile). Is it worth the £150 it sold for on Rumauctioneer in September 2019?  That’s harder, since everyone has favourites, not just among the stills, but the indies that release them and the years from which they hail. I’d suggest that for a rum from the 1980s, for its historical value (1980s single cask rums are getting rarer all the time), released by Moon Import which has a long history of careful selections, yes, it is.  For the taste profile and its proof point, perhaps not so much. 

(#817)(83/100)


Other Notes

  • Serge Valentin has probably reviewed more 1988 Enmore rums than anyone else around (six, covering a period of many years) and nowhere does he mention any confusion between the two stills.  Marius Elder of Single Cask Rum and Marco Freyr of Barrel Aged Mind probably did the best listings of them all, including (where known) whether they were Versailles or Enmore still rums, but neither has reviewed many yet (note that links provided here require searching for “1988”).
  • Thanks to Nicolai Wachmann of Denmark for the sample

Opinion

Moon Import’s website provides nothing on this rum, perhaps because a web presence wasn’t a big thing back in 2011, perhaps because good records weren’t being kept, or perhaps (worst of all) because accurately curating one’s back catalogue is not seen as anything important…a not-uncommon attitude among indies to this day, and one capable of driving me into transports of rage any time it is casually tossed out there for popular consumption. When will it ever become common for these old houses to properly research and list their older releases, and why is it considered of such low importance? FFS, people….

That kind of information is needed, because, again like the Moon’s PM 1974, the label is a problem.  There was only a single 1988-2011 release made, and that’s this one with the bird on the label, noted as being an Enmore….and yet is also stated as being a pot still product. The RumAuctioneer item description from September 2019 says it’s a Versailles because “…the Enmore distillery closed in 1993, with its wooden coffey still and the Versailles still moved first to Uitvlugt and then to Diamond in 2000…” Which is true except that a label mentioning a rum as being both an Enmore and a pot still clearly does not have unambiguous lock on historical detail, not least because there was also a still called the Enmore still onsite at the same time.  So which factoid are we to take as the right one?

Moon Import could rightfully say “both” – the Versailles still was at Enmore, so putting one name and one still type on the label is completely correct. Maybe I’m being overly critical.  But consider that these details have a way of spreading to other informational sources that are also now being referred to as research tools. The new app Rum-X correctly notes this as being an Enmore (Versailles) distillery rum and a 660 bottle outturn….but then goes on to say it was distilled on a Double Wooden Pot still, which of course is neither of the other two, but the PM still, thereby exacerbating the confusion. An ebay listing in Italy didn’t mention the still of origin at all. 

For the majority of rum drinkers, this is a complete non-issue.  They’ll see the years, the age, the indie, and buy it (or not) if they can.  For the discerning deep-diving rum fan who counts his money very carefully before dropping that kind of coin on an old rum, the lack of consistency, and confusion about the details, is a potential deal breaker. If you can’t nail the provenance down concretely, then it’s a dangerous buy, and that goes for a lot more than just this one rum.

Apr 292021
 

The small Martinique brand (once a distillery) of Dillon is not one which makes rhums that raises fiercely acquisitive instincts in the cockles of anyone’s hearts, if one goes by the dearth of any kind of online commentary on their stuff. When was the last time you saw anyone, even on the major French language Facebook rhum clubs, crow enthusiastically about getting one? And yet Dillon has a complete – if small – set of rhums: aged versions, blancs, mixers etc.  And those that I have tried (not many, which is my loss) have been quite good. 

Today’s subject is not a distillery brand, but from one of the independents, Florent Beuchet’s Compagnie des Indes.  Long time readers of these reviews will know of my fondness for Florent’s selections, which mix up some occasionally interesting offbeat rums with the more common fare from Central America and the Caribbean that all the indies bottle.  For example, there was the Indonesian rhum released in 2015, the recent 10-Cane rum, rums from Fiji, some from Guadeloupe, and even Guatemala. 

So here is a rhum from Dillon, which nowadays has its distillation apparatus located in Depaz’s facilities (see biographical notes, below), and this makes Dillon more of a brand than a complete cane-to-cork operation. It’s a single barrel offering, 2002 vintage which was aged in Europe for 9 years of the total of 13, bottled at a quiet 44%. Note that two Dillon barrels were bottled in 2015, MA56 with a 298-bottle outturn, and MA67 with 322, but my sample didn’t mention which it was so I contacted the source, the Danish rum tooth fairy Nicolai Wachmann…and it was MA67 for those who absolutely need to know.

Whatever the case, I must advise you that if you like agricoles at all, those smaller names and lesser known establishments like Dillon should be on your radar. Not all of the rhums they make are double-digit aged, so those that are, even if farmed out to a third party, are even more worth looking at. Just smell this one, for example: it’s a fruitarian’s wet dream. In fact, the aroma almost strikes me like a very good Riesling mixing it up with a 7-up, if you could conceive of such an unlikely pairing. Lighter than the Savanna HERR and much more delicate than even a low-strength Hampden, it smells crisp and very clean, with bags of pineapple slices, green grapes, apples, red grapefruit, bubble gum and lemon zest, all underlaid by a nice nutty and creamy white chocolate and some vanilla and flowers.

Strength is a major component of the assessment of a rhum like this.  44% is the wrong ABV for a woody and character-laden deeper rum like, say a Port Mourant (I think – your mileage may vary), but for a lighter and more scintillating agricole such as the Dillon, it’s spot on. Much of the nose bleeds over to the taste: sprite, grapefruit, lemon zest, pineapples, strawberries, and also ripe mangoes, green grapes, apples, pears and a touch of cinnamon and vanilla.  At first it feels too light, too easy, but as one gets used to the underlying complexity and balance, a really well-assembled piece of work slowly comes into focus. And this is the case even on the finish: it’s tight, medium-long, and always completely under control, never overstaying its welcome, never being bitchy, never hurrying off before the last bit of flavour – citrus peel, vanilla, whipped cream, pineapples – is showcased.  

In short, though released some years ago and getting harder to find, I think this is one of those rhums that got unnecessarily short shrift from the commentariat then, and gets as little now – because it’s something of a steal. Dillon may be off the map for all those people who love posting pictures of their latest acquisitions from Hampden, WP, Fiji, Foursquare or the ultra-aged indie-release of a wooden still rum; and it barely registers in comparison to better known agricole makers like Saint James, Clement, Damoiseau, Neisson or JM (among others).  I just think it should not be written off quite so fast — because even for a single barrel release where singular aspects of the cask’s profile is what led to its selection in the first place, it’s a flavourful, well-layered, well-balanced dram that is at that a near perfect strength to showcase its attributes. And there are really quite a lot of those, for anyone desirous of checking out a lesser known marque.

(#816)(86/100)


Other notes 

Dillon was established in 1690 when the site of the distillery in Fort de France was settled by Arthur Dillon, a soldier with Lafayette’s troops in the US War of Independence. A colonel at the age of sixteen, he married a well-to-do widow and used her funds to purchase the estate, which produced sugar until switching over to rhum in the 19th century. 

The original sugar mill and plant was wiped out in the 1902 volcanic eruption of Mont Pele, and eventually a distillery went into operation in 1928, by which time there had been several changes in ownership.  In 1967 Bordeaux Badinet (now Bardinet / La Martiniquaise Group) took over, the mill closed and the original Corliss steam engine and the creole column still was sent up the road to Depaz…so nowadays Dillon continues growing its own cane, but the distillation and bottling is done by Depaz, which is owned by the same group.

Dave Russell of Rum Gallery, who actually visited the distillery, remarked that the creole single column still is still in operation and is used specifically to make the Dillon marque, perhaps in an effort to distinguish it from Depaz’s own rhums.

Apr 262021
 

Isla del Ron is one of the smaller independent rum labels out of Europe, such as have sprung up with greater frequency over the last decade. It’s a division of its parent company Unique Liquids, founded around 2009, and located in north central Germany, between Dortmund and Hanover. To add to the complexity, it owns the related company Malts of Scotland – not entirely a surprise, since Thomas Ewers, the founder, likes his whisky perhaps more than rum. Since 2012, the company has produced about 22 various single barrel rums from all the usual suspects around the Caribbean and Central America.

The rhum we’re looking at today is a peculiar specimen: a single cask release of 169 bottles at 52.6%….but where from? Consider the label, which says “South Pacific”. Can you honestly make sense of that, given that even the geographically challenged are aware (we can hope) that Guadeloupe isn’t an island in the Pacific? Alex over at Master Quill explains what’s happening here: Ewers bought a cask marked “South Pacific”, but which had been mislabelled, and was actually from Bellevue…though it’s unclear how he came to that conclusion. Assuming he’s right, that sounds simple enough except…which one?  Because there are two Bellevues, one on the small island of Marie-Galante, the other on Guadeloupe (Grand Terre) itself, Damoiseau’s Bellevue at le Moule (That Boutique-y Rum Company made a similar mistake on the label of its Bellevue rhum a couple of years ago).

But it seems to be an unknown: Thomas felt it was from Marie-Galante, and Alex wasn’t so sure, given the variety of 1998 distillate marked Guadeloupe that other indies have released in the past, but which was from Damoiseau’s Bellevue on G-T, not Bellevue on M-G. What this means is that we don’t actually know whether it’s a cane juice rhum or a molasses rum (Damoiseau has a long history of working with both), or for sure which distillery produced it.

But let’s see if the tasting helps us figure things out, because the fact is that the Isla del Ron Guadeloupe is actually a quiet kind of delicious (with certain caveats, which I’ll get to later). The nose, for example, is a warm and soft caramel ice cream pillow with a bunch of contrasting fruity notes (grapes, pomegranates, kiwi fruit) lending it some edge.  Bags of toffee, bonbons, flowers and a flirt of licorice waft around the glass, set off with oversweet strawberry bubble gum and (peculiarly) some a creamy feta cheese minus the salt. Throughout it remains a pleasant sniff, with some citrus and tannic notes bringing up the rear.

The nose doesn’t help narrow down the origin (though I have my suspicions), and the palate doesn’t either – but it is nice. It remains light, slightly briny, and just tart enough to be crisp. It has moments of sprightliness and sparkling freshness, tasting of red grapefruit, grapes, sprite, orange zest and herbs (rosemary and dill) – but also presents a contrasting whiff of sharper and slightly bitter oaky aspects, cinnamon, licorice, molasses, with back-end nougat and coconut shavings allowing it to smoothen out somewhat…if not completely successfully, in my view. I do like the finish, which is medium long, medium warm, and quite tasty: closing notes of citrus peel, caramel, pencil shavings and some raisins, plus a few delicate flowers.

Personally, my opinion on its source tends more towards Damoiseau, what with that distillery releasing rather more bulk rum to brokers than Bellevue, which is smaller and has more of a local market; and the molasses and vanilla and caramel notes point in that direction also. To be honest, though, I thought that the rum’s overall profile fell somewhere in between the crispness of the Bielle 2001 14 YO and a Cuban like Cadenhead’s ADC Spiritu Sancti 1998 14 YO. That’s not a major issue though, because as with most such situations, it’s all about whether it works as a rum or not, and if so, how good it is.  

On that basis, I’d say that yes, overall it’s a solid Guadeloupe rhum…just one without real originality. It lacks distinctiveness, and carves out no new territory of its own.  It’s a lovely tasting rhum, yes, but unfortunately, also not one you’d be able to remember clearly next week. In that sense, it’s like many bally-hooed and overhyped rums we keep hearing about every day on social media, but which then drop out of sight forever without ever having stirred the emotions of us drinkers in any serious way. And that’s a bit of a shame, really, for a rum that is otherwise quite good.

(#815)(86/100)

Apr 222021
 

One of the things that irritates me about this blended rum from Guyana which Rum Nation released in 2019, is the carelessness of the front label design.  I mean, seriously, how is it possible that “British Guyana” can actually be on a rum label in the 21st century, when Guyana has not been British anything since 1966 and when it was, it was spelled “Guiana”? Are designers really that clueless? And lest you think this is just me having a surfeit of my daily snarky-pills, think about it this way: if they couldn’t care enough to get their facts right about stuff so simple, what else is there on the label I can’t trust?

Still: I am grateful that the back label is more informative. Here, it is clearly spelled out that the rum is a blend of distillate from the French Savalle still, the (Enmore) wooden coffey still and the (Port Mourant) double wooden pot still, and this blend was aged for four years in the tropics (in British Guyana, one may assume) before undergoing a secondary European maturation for six years in ex-oloroso casks, and then decanted into 2,715 bottles, each at 56.4% ABV. What this is, then, is a bottling similar to DDL’s own experimental blended Rares, which has dropped completely out of sight since its introduction in 2019. A similar fate appears to have befallen this one since I don’t know the last time I saw one pop up at auction, let alone on social media.

But perhaps it’s an undiscovered steal, so let’s look deeper.  Nose first: it’s surprisingly simple, even straightforward. It’s warm and thick, and represents the wooden stills in fine style – dusty, redolent of breakfast spices, oak and vanilla at first, then allows additional aromas of coffee grounds, raisins, dried orange peel dark fruits, licorice. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the oloroso influence is dominating though, and in fact it seems rather dialled down, which is unexpected for a rum with a six year sleep in sherry barrels.

I do, on the other hand, like the taste. It’s warm and rich and the Enmore still profile – freshly sawn lumber, sawdust, pencil shavings – is clear. Also sour cream, eggnog, and bags of dried, dark fruits (raisins, prunes, dried plums) mix it up with a nice touch of sandalwood. It takes its own sweet time getting the the point and is a little discombobulated throughout, but I can’t argue with the stewed apples, dried orange peel, ripe red guavas and licorice – it’s nice. The finish is quite solid, if unexceptional: it lasts a fair bit, and you’re left with closing notes of licorice, oak chips, vanilla, dried fruit and black cake.

Overall, it’s a good rum, though I believe it tries for too much with the three stills’ distillates and the long sherry barrel ageing.  There’s a lot going on but it doesn’t quite snap together into a harmonious whole. There’s always too much or too little of one or other element here, the sherry influence is inconsistent at best, and it keeps charging around in a confusing mishmash of rum that tastes okay but never settles down to allow us as drinkers to come to grips with it.  This is an observation also levelled at DDL’s experimental rares, by the way, but not Velier’s “blended in the barrel” series of later Guyanese rums which set the bar quite high for such blends. 

Clearing away the dishes, then, consider it as a decent blend, something for those who want to take a flier on an El Dorado rum that isn’t actually one of them, or a less expensive, younger Velier blend.  Think of it as a stronger and slightly older version of ED’s own 8 Year Old, lacking only DDL’s mastery of their blending practice to score higher. That is at best a guarded endorsement, but it’s all the rum really merits

(#814)(82/100)


Background

Rum Nation is that indie rum company founded by Fabio Rossi back in 1999 in Firenze (in NE Italy), and if they ever had a killer app of their own, it was those very old Demeraras and Jamaican “Supreme Lord” rums which were once wrapped in jute sacking and ensconced in wooden boxes. Rum Nation was one of the first of the modern rum independents that created whole ranges of rums and not just one or two single barrel expressions: from affordable starter bottles to ultra-aged products, and if they aged some of their releases in Europe, well, at the time that was hardly considered a disqualifier.

By 2016, however, things had started to change. Velier’s philosophy of pure tropically-aged rums had taken over the conceptual marketplace at the top end of sales, and a host of new and scrappy European independents had emerged to take advantage of rum’s increasing popularity. Rum Nation took on the challenge by creating a new bottle line called the Rare Collection – the standard series of entry level barroom-style bottles remained, but a new design ethos permeated the Rares – sleeker bottles, bright and informative labelling, more limited outturns. In other words, more exclusive. Many of these rums sold well and kept Rum Nation’s reputation flying high.  People of slender means and leaner purses kept buying the annual entry-level releases, while connoisseurs went after the aged Rares.

Two years later, Fabio was getting annoyed at being sidetracked from his core whisky business (he owns Wilson & Morgan, a rebottler), and he felt the indie rum business was more trouble than it was worth. Too, he was noticing the remarkable sales of the Ron Millonario line (a light bodied, rather sweet rum out of Peru), which, on the face of it, should not be anywhere near as successful as it was. And so, finally, he divested himself of the Rum Nation brand altogether, selling out to a small group of Danish investors.  He kept the Millonario brand and has an arrangement to rep RN at various rum festivals (which was how I saw him in 2019 in Berlin), but the era of his involvement with the company formed two decades earlier, is now over.  

…which might explain why the label was done that way.

Apr 182021
 

When most people spend money on rhum agricoles, they tend to go for the upscale aged (“vieux”) editions, those handily aged expressions or millesimes which have tamed the raw white juice dripping off the still by ageing them for several years. Consumers like the smooth sipping experience of an aged brown spirit, and not many consider that while such rhums do indeed taste lovely and are worth their price tag, the ageing process does take away something too – some of the fresh, snappy bite of a white rhum that hasn’t yet been altered in any way by wood-spirit interaction and a long rest.

Locals in the French West Indies have for centuries drunk the blanc rhum almost exclusively – after all, they didn’t have time to muck around waiting a few years for their favourite tipple to mature and in any case the famous tropical Ti-punch was and remains tailor made to showcase the fresh grassiness and herbal pizzazz of a well made blanc. To this day, just about every one of the small distilleries in the French islands, no matter how many aged rhums they make, always has at least one house blanc rhum, and just about all of them are great. In fact, so popular have they become, that nowadays increasingly specialized “micro-rhums” (my term) based on parcellaires and single varietals of sugar cane are beginning to become a real thing and make real sales. 

Depaz’s 45% rhum blanc agricole is not one of these uber-exclusive, limited-edition craft whites that uber-dorks are frothing over. But the quality and taste of even this standard white shows exactly how good the blancs were in the first place, and how the rhum makers of Depaz got it so right to begin with. Consider the nose: it is fresh, vegetal and frothily green, vibrantly alive and thrumming with aromas of crisp sugar cane sap, sugar water and tart watermelon juice.  And that’s the just for openers – it has notes of green apples, grapes, cucumbers in sweet vinegar and pimento, and a clean sense of fruits and soda pop, even some brine and an olive or two.  All this from a rum considered entry level.

The palate has difficulty living up to that kind of promise, but that should by no means dissuade one from trying it.  It’s a completely traditional and delectable agricole profile: sweet, grassy and very crisp on the tongue, like a tart lemon sherbet.  It tastes of lemon, cumin, firm white pears and papayas, and even shows off some firm yellow mangoes, soursop and star-apples. The 45% isn’t very strong, yet it provides a depth of flavour one can’t find much fault with, and this carries over into a nicely long-lasting, spicy finish that is sweet, green, tart and very clean. There’s a whole bunch of fruit left behind on the finish and it really makes for a nice neat pour, or (of course) a Ti-punch.

Depaz is located on the eponymous estate in St. Pierre in Martinique, which is at the foot of  Mount Pelée  itself: it has been in existence since 1651 when the first governor of Martinique, Jacques Duparquet, created the plantation. Although the famous eruption of the volcano in 1902 decimated the island, Victor Depaz, who survived, reopened for business in 1917 and it’s been operational ever since. The company also makes quite a few other rhums: the Rhum Depaz, a full proof 50% beefcake, the Blue Cane Rhum Agricole as well as an XO and the Cuvee Prestige, to name just a few. 

I have never tried as many of their rhums as I would like, and for a company whose rums I enjoy quite a bit, it’s odd I don’t spend more time and money picking up the range (I feel the same way about Bielle and Dillon). I keep adding to my knowledge-base of Depaz’s rhums year in and year out, however, and so far have found little to criticize and much to admire.  When even an entry level product of the line is as god as this one is, you know that here there’s a company who’s attending seriously to business, and from whom only better things can be expected as one goes up the line of their products.

(#813)(84/100)


Other notes

  • It goes without saying that this is a cane juice product, AOC compliant, columnar still.
  • Depaz is not an independent family operated establishment any longer, but is part of the Bardinet-La Martiniquaise Group, a major French beverages conglomerate which also owns Saint James and Riviere du Mat.
Apr 112021
 

After a decade of observing the (mostly Europe-based) independent bottlers, I think it can be said with some assurance that they tend to stick with The Tried and True in their first years. In other words, they source and release rums from the canonical distilleries in the familiar countries – Guyana, Barbados, St. Lucia, or Jamaica, with occasional fliers from Belize, Cuba, Fiji, Australia or Trinidad being seen as second order efforts.

When it comes to distinguishing themselves from the herd, few show much real imagination.  Oh, for sure the Compagnie des Indes releases private blends like the Boulet de Canon and Dominador (and released a very fine Indonesian arrack several years ago); Rom Deluxe goes to the max with its massively proofed Jamaican DOK, L’Esprit does some amazing white rums, and several indies find a way to get rums aged for nearly three decades into their bottles – I merely submit this is more and better of the same. Truly new products that showcase something different are actually in rather short supply.

When it comes to doing something original, then, the Boutique-y Rum Company – a division of Atom Brands in the UK, who also run the Masters of Malt website – is one to keep an eye on. Not only are they releasing rums from the “standard” countries, but they seem to really try to go someplace new – consider their Issan rum, the Labourdonnais, the O Reizinho or the Colombian Casa Santana. Those are rums from niche distilleries many have never even heard of before, and to add spice to the mix, there is of course the cool label design done by Jim’ll Paint It which are bright, clever, funny and chock full of little easter eggs for the knowledgeable.

Which leads us to this one. The Engenhos do Norte distillery is located in Madeira, an island considered part of Portugal (even though geographically it’s closer to Africa) and one of the few places outside the French islands that can use the term agricole legally. The rum is derived from cane run through a crusher powered by a steam engine (that’s what the label shows), fermented for about 4-5 days, passed through a columnar barbet still and then left to age in French oak barrels.  So although it doesn’t say so, it’s an aged rhum agricole. 1395 bottles were released, at a firm but not over-strong 48.8%, and the last I checked it was still selling for around forty quid which I think is a pretty good deal

Tasting notes. The nose is nice.  At under 50% not too much sharpness, just a good solid heat, redolent of soda, fanta, coca cola and strawberries.  There’s a trace of coffee and rye bread, and also a nice fruity background of apples, green grapes, yellow mangoes and kiwi fruit.  It develops well and no fault can found with the balance among these disparate elements.

I also like the way it tastes. It’s initially dry and peppery, but also crisp, tasting of marshmallows, and tart white fruits like guavas, Thai mangoes, unripe pears, soursop, papaya, watermelon and pineapple. There’s a nice thread of lemon underneath it all, cumin, vanilla, and a nice touch of brine and olives.  This all leads to a conclusion that is short and easy, redolent mostly of sweet watery fruit with a last musky brine taste, and some more lemon zest. 

In a peculiar way, it reminds me less of a French Island agricole than of a grogue from Cabo Verde.  There’s a sort of easy crispness to the experience, with the herbal notes evident but not as strong and clear and focused as a Martinique rhum is.  For centuries Madeirans drank their rhums unaged and white — of late they have begun to try and develop an aged rum industry and expand beyond the local market which thus far has consumed everything the small distilleries produce.  The development of real blending and ageing skill is still some years in the future, and thus far it’s only the small IBs like Boutique-y that have brought their rums to our attention. But I think that we should keep an eye out for the rhums from Madeira, all of them.  Based on the few I’ve tried, these guys know what they’re doing, know how to make a good rhum, and will be going places in the years to come.

(#812)(84/100)


Other notes

  • For centuries, aside from their famed fortified wines, white rum was all Madeira was known for, and just about all of it was made from small family-owned sugar cane plots, consumed locally as ponchos, and as often considered to be moonshine as a legitimate product. Because of the small size of the island a landed aristocracy based on the system of large plantations never took off there. 6-8 years ago, the Portuguese government started to incentivize the production of aged rum on Madeira.  Several producers started laying down barrels to age, one of which was Engenhos do Norte – however the lack of an export market (for now) allowed Boutique-y to buy a few barrels and release them
  • Engenhos do Norte also produces the well regarded Rum North series of rums, as well as the 970 and 980 brands.
  • The label is somewhat self explanatory: it shows the premises of the distillery, the steam driven crusher and the barbet column still. The polar bears are an in-joke: sugar cultivation took off in Madeira in the 15th and 16th century and was called ouro branco – white gold. It’s long been a sly pun that when mumbled over the roar of the machinery, the phrase is heard as ursa branco, or white bear. On the other hand, some say that Madeirans are huge hulking bear like men who hand harvest ten acres of cane before breakfast and fetch it out one-handed to the factory and this is a way of honouring their physical prowess. I don’t know which is true, but I like both stories.
Apr 082021
 

2016 seems like such a long time ago with respect to Hampden rums.  Back then we got them in dribs and drabs, from scotch whisky makers (who could rarely be bothered to mention the distillery) and the occasional indie bottler like Berry Bros. & Rudd, Compagnie des Indes, Rom Deluxe, Renegade or Murray McDavid. That all changed in 2018 when Velier concluded a deal to be their worldwide distributor and the PR machine roared into overdrive.  Since then, Hampden has become one of the boutique rums du jour, and they sell out almost as fast as the Foursquare ECS rums.

Back in 2016, though, this wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Hampden was known to the cognoscenti of course, those superdorks who paid close attention to the indie scene, knew their Caribbean distilleries cold and bought everything they could…but not many others from the larger mass market cared enough about it; and anyway, supplies were always low. The distillery was ageing its own stock and continued to sell bulk abroad, so most independents sourced from Europe. That’s how SBS, the geek-run rum arm of the Danish distribution partnership 1423, picked up this barrel.

SBS itself was only created in 2015, seven years after its parent came into being, to cater to the boys’ fascination and love for pure rums. Their business had gone well by this time and they decided to branch out into their first love – “our core DNA,” as Joshua Singh remarked to me – single barrel rums. And they picked up this continentally aged rum which had been distilled in Hampden’s pot still in September 2000 and bottled it in October 2016 in time for the European festival circuit, which is where my rum tooth fair Nicolai Wachmann picked it up and passed some on to me. 202 bottles of this 16 year old rum came out of the barrel and was left as is, at a cask strength of 58.9%.

Clearly, with the explosion of interest in both the SBS range and Hampden over the years, this is something of a find. It’s quite rare, seems to be relatively unknown, and has only turned up once at auction that I could find, and fetched a cool £150 when it did.  But when I tasted it, I thought to myself that these guys knew their sh*t, and chose well.  Consider the opening salvo of the nose – it felt like the Savanna 10YO HERR all over again (and that’s a serious compliment).  It had esters puffing and squirting in all directions, very light and clean.  A warm exhalation of rubber on a hot day, dunder and funk, formed a bed upon which sparkling notes of red currants, strawberries, crisp yellow mangoes, unsweetened yoghurt and over-sweet bubble gum competed for attention. It had that kind of cloying sweet to it, leavened with some sharper brine and olives and rye bread left to go bad and was the diametrical opposite of the rather dour and dark Caronis or PM Demeraras.

It was, however, on the plate, that it shone. This was a rum to savour, to enjoy, to treasure.  It was a solid, serious rum of surprising complexity: just shy of hot, tasting of brine, avocados, kräuterquark, salt crackers, interspersed with pineapple slices, kiwi fruits and the tartness of unripe peaches and more mangoes.  There was a wisp of vanilla in there, some faint white chocolate and nuts and caramel ice cream that somehow stopped just short of softening things too much, and allowed the crisp tartness to remain.  As for the finish, it didn’t falter – it was long and hot (in a good way), and reminded me again of the HERR, though perhaps it was a shade deeper, tasting nicely of salted caramel, bananas, pineapples, fanta, cinnamon and lemon peel.

In short, quite a serious all-round rum, not quite so savage as to scare anyone away, while powerful enough to distinguish it from standard strength rums aimed at the larger non-expert rum drinking audience. 58.9% is a near perfect strength for it, permitting full enjoyment of the nuances without any pain. Could it be mixed? Probably…though I wouldn’t. Hampden has always managed to produce rums that — whether aged in Jamaica or in Europe — set the bar a bit higher than most others; and though nobody comes right out and says so, part of the attraction of a rum so bursting with flavours is to have it neat and wring every tasting detail from every drop. This is the way most people speak of Hampden rums now that Velier is distributing them, but it was no less true in 2016. 1423 sure picked a winner that year.

(#811)(88/100)

Apr 042021
 

Back in 2019 before the world changed, I was fortunate enough (and for the first time ever), to get a “blogger” badge at the Berlin Rumfest.  This did not, of course, class with the far cooler “Exhibitor” or “Judge” badge that others ostentatiously wore front and center.  Nor did it come with any kind of perks: I did not get let in free; it conferred no free samples or extra goodies; I was not plied with hats, shirts, glasses, and the thing absolutely did not give free entrance to master classes and seminars. In fact, it was so small and drab it could almost be overlooked altogether. Yet I was inordinately proud that I had one, and preened to all and sundry until I was brought down to earth by (who else?) The Little Caner, who asked in that ego-deflating manner he has perfected from his old age of fourteen, what it was good for.

In fine, just one thing: it allowed me to get in one hour earlier than everyone else, and since I usually try to arrive at the opening bell, this was a godsend, because it meant I could talk to some of the busier booth people without a crowd, before they got distracted. So there I was at 11a.m. on a sunny Sunday morning looking for old friends and new ones, and spotted Benoit Bail over at the Saint James stand.  He was talking with Marc Sassier (the resident oenologist who is in charge of production at Saint James on Martinique) — I wandered over to say hello, and we started talking about white rhums, of which three examples were on the tabletop.

Now, I had tried that shudderingly powerful 60º colourless Hammer of Thor that was the Coeur de Chauffe earlier that year and Marc allowed it was definitely deserving of all the plaudits (it was a non-AOC pot-still white, unusual for Martinique). “But you should try the other two as well,” he said, pointing to the bottles. My eye went first to the frosted bottle of the 50% Fleur de Canne, and he suggested I try it after the 40% red-lettered version. “Forget the Imperial name,” he told me, “This rhum is the original, just watered down for the bartenders circuit. Good to start you off.”

“So, not a sipping rum?” I asked

Everyone laughed. “They are all sipping rums to someone,” Marc smiled, and he and Benoit courteously left me to try the soft white rhum. 

And indeed, I enjoyed the nose immensely – it had a nice lemony and herbal opening, like rain on freshly mown grass on a hot clear day. You could almost smell the sunlight. It had all the hallmarks of a really well made agricole rhum: herbs, dill, parsley and a trace of coriander; crisp cucumbers in sweet apple cider, with a red sweet pepper dropped in for kick. A lovely, clean aroma of a natural product.

I looked up from my note-taking. “All the usual?” I called over. “Cane juice, crushing within 48 hours of harvest, quick fermentation, creole still?” 

Marc looked highly amused. “It would not have the “AOC” on the label without it,” he pointed out. And of course he was right: that appellation is very strict and fiercely adhered to — Saint James would hardly mess around with it. “Just checking,” I said, glad he wasn’t offended — maybe he knew me well enough from my writing to understand why I’d ask the question. He went back to his conversation, and I went back to my tasting.

I liked the palate, but here the softening to 40% and its more uncouth nature worked against it, and it lacked something of the finesse I expect from a well-made white. Now, the grassy, tangy freshness of the nose carried over – it was just weak and lacked the assertiveness that would make a statement and allow the flavours to pop. That said, there was some roughness in the notes of lime, bitters, tart fruits, sugar cane sap and green apples which was evident on the neat pour, and it was quickly over. The finish was as crisp and short, and as sharp as Mrs. Caner’s criticisms of my many failings…but it must be said that many of the aromas of the nose – tart apples, grass, dill, lemongrass – carry through. “It’s quite an experience,” I remarked later to Benoit and Mark, when we were discussing the rhums.

Saint James has a range of what some generously refer to as “starter” or “cocktail” rums. The Imperial Blanc, the first of these, retails for around €20, and is succeeded up the price and value chain by the Royal Blanc Agricole (50º, also red lettered label), then the blue-letter variation of the Rhum Blanc Agricole 55º and the rather more upscale frosted bottle of the Fleur de Canne (50º) which is sort of a special edition white, the last of the column-still unaged blancs before the Coeur de Chauffe blows them all into next week.

I’ve tried quite a few of these whites from the company, and the thing is, what impresses about the Imperial is its cost benefit ratio — it tastes well and noses even better for the first and cheapest rhum in that lineup. The profile is reasonably good, isn’t strong enough to offend or frighten, and provides most of what is required of a low-level intro to unaged agricoles.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it makes a great Ti’ punch – you need to go to 50º for that to happen, and Clement and Damoiseau provide stiff competition as well – but its very good at providing a flavourful jolt to whatever you feel like adding it to, even at standard strength.  So while I wouldn’t say it’s a key rum of any kind, it certainly is tailor made for bars, and for anyone of lean purse who wants to start working on his knowledge of the blanc side. 

(#810)(80/100)

Mar 292021
 

 

Indonesia is the region where sugar cane originated and gave rise to the proto-rums of yesteryear, which have their genesis in arrack, a distillate first identified by the Dutch and Portuguese in the town of Batavia (now Jakarta, the capital). After being practically unknown to the larger rum drinking public for a long time, arrack and local rums are now slowly being shown to western audiences, most notably from By The Dutch and their Batavia Arrack, and the little company of Naga which produced the rum we’re looking at today.

Based in Indonesia, Naga is a rum company formed around 2016 by Sebastien Follope, another one of those roving, spirits-loving French entrepreneurs who are behind some of the most interesting Asian rums around (Chalong Bay, Issan and Sampan are examples). While small, the company has several rums in its eclectic portfolio, though they lack any distillation facilities of their own – they are buying from a distillery on Java on the outskirts of Jakarta, which cannot be named.

This particular rum is called the Triple Wood for good reason – it is aged in three different kinds of barrels, and is an extension of the “Double Cask Aged” rum we have looked at twice before – once under that name in 2018, and once as the “Java Reserve Double Aged rum” a year later. The triple wood is similarly a molasses-based rum, column-still distilled, aged for three years in barrels made of teak (also called jati), four years in ex-Bourbon and one more year in cherry-wood barrels – it is, therefore, eight years old. Since the company was only formed in 2016 and this rum came on the scene in 2018, it is clear that the first ageing and part of the second was done at the distillery of origin (or a broker, it’s unclear).

Does this multiple wood ageing result in anything worth drinking? Yes it does – the extra year seems to have had an interesting and salutary effect on the profile –  though at 42.7% it remains as easy and soft as its siblings.  The nose, for example, is a nice step up: cardboard, musty paper, some dunder of spoiled bananas skins, plus strawberries and soft pineapple or two and brine (which, I swear, made me think of Hawaiian pizza). Caramel and bitter dark chocolate round things off.  It’s a relatively easy sniff, inoffensive yet solid.

The palate is goes on to be warm, soft, and somewhat sweeter.  Initially, given its puffed cloudy vagueness, you’d think it’s simple and amorphous, but actually it just keeps improving over time – the rum unfolds like a small origami flower, gradually – even shyly – presenting floral tastes, molasses, toffee, nougat, breakfast spices, licorice and some watery background of melons and pears.  It’s easy and very relaxing to sip, because the flavours don’t come at you all at once, but kind of stroll past doing a slow ragtime.  That low strength, much as I usually prefer something stronger, really is probably right for what that taste is, but it must also be admitted it makes for a weak finish: clean and easy, just not much more than some light flowers, strawberries and bubble gum, fanta, light molasses, and a bit of musty and dust-filled rooms.

I quite liked the rum and enjoyed its low-key, tasty nature, so different from the more aggressive high-proof rums I’ve been seeing of late – after all, one doesn’t always a need a massive overproof squirting dunder, alcohol and pain in all directions.  And arrack, this rum’s progenitor, is an interesting variation on what a rum can be (as an example, fermented rice is usually added to the fermenting molasses – see other notes for more details) which is something worth taking note of and these times of dominance by famed Caribbean distilleries. There’s no question that it’s a somewhat different kind of rum, more representative of its region than of any “standard” kind of profile – but for those who are okay trying something different, it won’t disappoint.

(#809)(81/100)

 


Other Notes

  • Naga is a Sanskrit-based word referring to the mythical creature of Asia, a dragon or large snake, that guards the treasures of the earth, and is also a symbol of prosperity and protection
  • This rum is now named “Pearl of Jakarta.”
  • Production:
    • Fermentation of molasses and fermented red rice in teak vats up to
    • 12% ABV.
    • 52% of this “cane wine” then distilled in traditional Chinese stills to 30% ABV. It is then distilled in these same stills a second time, until it reaches 60-65%.
    • 48% of the “cane wine” distilled in a column still to 92% ABV. 
    • The rums obtained in this way are then blended and aged for 3 years in teak barrels, then transferred to American oak barrels (ex-bourbon barrels) for 4 years before ageing for one final year in cherry wood barrels.